10 Lessons You Weren’t Taught In Law School

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It is often said law schools fail to prepare students for the actual practice of law.

Yes, law school does a good job at training you to “think like a lawyer” and spot issues, do legal research, draft legal documents, and put together a legal argument. But there are so many practical things that law school doesn’t teach you, especially a number of soft skills. This includes things like social grace, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, optimism, and resilience.

Here are ten critical skills missing from many law school curricula.

1. How to Handle Conflict

Most of the time, your client will be in a conflict with someone else. Your role is to represent the client in the conflict with competence. Most people don’t enjoy being in conflict. Conflict is uncomfortable, triggers stress responses, and can make you angry. Because of our desire to win, it often brings out the absolute worst in all of us.

Law schools should teach ways of engaging in conflict that are constructive, healthy, and maintains civil relationships with opposing counsel. This can be done by valuing emotional intelligence, tact, and grace over aggression. Law schools should teach students that they are a part of the larger legal community, and today’s opposing counsel may be tomorrow’s judge, co-counsel, co-worker, or your best referral partner. Students should never think about an interaction with a particular lawyer as a single transaction.

Law students should also learn different conflict styles and be familiar with their own conflict style. Graduates should come with a toolbox full of different ways of living with, working through, and managing conflict. It’s not enough to teach or talk about civility as an abstract concept. Students should also understand that conflict isn’t inherently bad, and can be used as an opportunity to grow and strengthen a relationship.

2. How to Forgive

I used to walk around with a rolodex of every terrible thing that people said or did to me. This included classmates, bosses, co-workers, judges, opposing counsel, clients, family, and friends.

That’s a lot of baggage to carry around.

When you’re in the conflict management business, people are bound to step on your toes and piss you off. How do you let go of these feelings of anger, resentment, hostility and revenge? How do you stop these experiences from consuming you?

The answer lies with forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget about what the other person did (that’s probably unwise anyway). It doesn’t mean you have to kiss and mak eup. It’s not about repairing the relationship, although, in certain situations, it can certainly involve that. And it doesn’t mean letting the other person off the hook or condoning their behavior.

The primary beneficiary of forgiveness is yourself.

Law schools can foster an environment where forgiveness is a valued skill by encouraging professors to discuss it in the classroom and give students the opportunity to practice it. To forgive each other can enhance the moral of the student body and increase social bond.

3. How to Have Difficult and Uncomfortable Conversations

I could not have imagined the incredibly difficult conversations I would have with my clients over the years. There are the usual uncomfortable calls to remind a client about an unpaid invoice, quoting a fee, or telling her that you lost a Motion for Summary Judgement.

We constantly deal with incredibly delicate issues and are charged with delivering life altering news yet we don’t receive any training on how to do this. We also don’t receive any training on ways to manage our own internal challenges of being in these difficult situations.

It took me many years to figure out how to manage these difficult conversations with grace, authenticity, and compassion — key ingredients needed to make a good lawyer.

4. How to be Present

As lawyers, our time is the commodity we trade for money. The more fully present we can be in each moment, the better we will be as lawyers. Luckily, being in the moment is a trainable and learnable skill.

Some law schools are, in fact, teaching contemplative lawyering skills, which includes mindfulness — learning to be in the present moment without preference or judgment.

As lawyers, we must be agile and able to pivot as information is gathered. If our mind is completely preoccupied with thoughts about the future or the past, we can’t be fully be present to process the information available to us, hindering our ability to be agile and pivot when necessary.

5. How to Maintain Physical and Emotional Health

As lawyers, we have a duty to provide competent representation to a client. And to do that, we must maintain our mental, emotional, and physical health.

The key to maintaining your mental, emotional, and physical health is self-care. You must be self-aware enough to recognize and care for your mental health, which requires noticing when you are experiencing stress or anxiety. In order to care for your emotions, you must be able to recognize when you are experiencing negative emotions and find healthy ways of working through them. Maintaining your physical health requires a balance of exercise, rest, and a healthy diet.

Law schools should bring more awareness to this and start teaching law students tools for self-care. This would help many of the problems which is so prevalent in our profession — burnout, depression, alcohol and substance abuse.

6. How to Be Compassionate

When I say compassionate, what I am referring to is our innate feeling of wanting to help when witnessing someone else’s suffering. What I am not referring to is sympathy, being soft, or let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

In our line of work, we often witness a lot of pain. Rarely do clients come into our office to share happy news. In many ways, our relationship to our clients is very intimate. We gain inside information about our client that she wouldn’t share with anyone else. Therefore, our ability to handle the suffering of our clients without losing ourselves is a critically important skill.

Maintaining a healthy balance between our client’s difficulties and ourselves is a skill that can only come with practice. It’s important to know how to be compassionate with our client’s suffering while being compassionate towards ourselves. This is an essential part of self-care. If we can’t recognize that we’re hurting and take time to care for ourselves, we begin to deplete our mental and emotional reserve. When lawyers continue to push ourselves without refilling our reserve, he or she will experience burnout.

7. How to Manage Personal Finances

Law students often graduate with $150,000 or more in student loan debt. Rarely do these students seriously think about what repaying that amount of debt looks like. When I taught a Solo Practice Management course, I was surprised at how few students could answer questions these basic questions:

  • How much do you owe?
  • What will be your monthly minimum payments?
  • How much do you have to earn to be able to repay that loan within a reasonable amount of time?
  • If your gross income was $100,000, what would be your net income?
  • What is your anticipated monthly living expenses?

As a bankruptcy attorney, I’m seeing an increased number of graduates (some law school graduates) who clearly had little or no understanding of what it will take to repay the debt. Even one-day course on personal finance would go a long way in giving students basic tools to help understand and manage their financial futures.

8. How to Manage Law Firm Finances

For most lawyers, the practice of law is a business. It’s a profit driven activity, yet there is little or no emphasis on the business end of the law practice. This includes things like law firm finance, understanding overhead, hiring/managing staff, how to price your services, as well as marketing and advertising. Some basic knowledge of law firm finance would not only benefit students who are going into solo practice, but also those who go on to work in a law firm.

9. How to Create and Sustain Your Own Brand

Long gone are the days where most law student graduates find a nice associate job, make partner seven years later, and retire at the same firm. Lawyers must actively market and brand themselves. They must also grow and learn to leverage their network. They must figure out their own networking style and understand what works for them. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a skill law students should be encouraged to hone from their first day in law school.

Law students should be familiar with social media and proper ways to use it to promote themselves. Too often, law students don’t pay enough attention to networking during law school.

10. How to Collaborate With Others (Nicely)

During my first year in law school, I was doing legal research for a Research & Writing class. When I went to the library to pull the book that I needed, I was horrified to find that the pages I needed had been torn out of the book. Stories like this are all too familiar in law school. I don’t know if law school attracts students who enjoy aggressive competition, or if law school trains them to become this way, but we must equip students with more tools than one.

Law students should understand that even in adversarial situations, cooperation is often critical in moving a case forward towards a resolution. Students should also know you can zealously represent your clients without demonizing the other side. And at the end of the day, you can safely enjoy a beer with opposing counsel.

Featured image: “Image of businessman in blindfold standing on edge of mountain” from Shutterstock.

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  • 55YearBroncoFan

    I like the section about forgiveness. If there is anything at which lawyers excel, it is resentment and grudge bearing. These things often affect others down the line who are not parties to either.

    Further to what the author wrote, “I used to walk around with a rolodex of every terrible thing that people said or did to me. This included classmates, bosses, co-workers, judges, opposing counsel, clients, family, and friends,” she also should have also included employees and former employees. I was paralegal to a lawyer who would treat me as an adversary when I could not provide something the individual wanted immediately. As a trial lawyer maybe the individual could not help it, despite my loyalty the individual acknowledged the day individual terminated me. To that point, while I cannot prove it I strongly suspect that lawyer subtly badmouthed me after kicking me out. For sure that lawyer reneged on promising me a LOR.

    • I am sorry to hear about your experience. That’s really painful. I’ve also seen lawyers mistreat secretaries and paralegals. Which goes back to my point above on collaboration. We should strive to lead with kindness – particularly towards those who are there to help us do our job better.

  • Paul McGuire

    There is so much truth here. Sadly I know a few attorneys who have held grudges against me and refused my help because they think I crossed a line they can’t forgive by representing the other side. It would do people well to remember that often we take positions because that is what the client’s case requires not because we have something out for the opposing party or attorney.

    I also wish that career services at my law school had spent more time talking about the ways to use social media productively to build a brand. Instead they spent all of their time making sure everyone was so scared of losing a potential job based on what they posted that they never used their real name on Facebook. Thankfully I ignored them and have spent my time building a positive brand.

    • Spot on, on both counts. I think lawyers should try to cultivate a friendly relationship with the opposing counsel whenever possible so that when things get tough, you don’t take things so personally. I’ve always enjoyed those relationships where we can zealously advocate for our clients yet go out for a beer at the conclusion of the case.

      I don’t know why so many law students are deathly afraid of social media but I found that to be the case when I taught Solo Practice Mgt last year. Good for you for going with your gut instinct.

  • Jeena, great list because it is so spot on. These are the soft skills,
    the skills required for self-preservation in an adversarial profession.
    These are the skills that, when not mastered, lead to depression,
    addiction and ultimately leaving the profession. Of course, business is
    a must but did you know that the majority of people would rather go to
    the dentist than learn about finance? That’s sad commentary and
    financial suicide for a lawyer in business for themselves.

    • I totally agree with you Susan. It seems like law schools overly value one tool – the hammer and forget about so many other tools that are available which may be far more effective.

  • jennifer rose

    So true, so very true. Now, what will it take for law schools to teach those things? Or does the education start long before law school?

  • WWH

    I was in the title business for 10 years, a LA for 8 years and have now been licensed for almost 18 years, 3 of which I’ve been board certified. I’m a solo practitioner in a very successful practice. My son was 5 when I started law school as a 33 year old single mother; he’s now 26 and in his second semester, second year at the same law school I attended. Dovetailed in with the teachings of running a household on a budget, I’ve tried to teach him about the business of the legal practice (my undergrad is a BBA, Mgmt and Acctg). As social media savvy as his generation is, I’m befuddled that the law school doesn’t teach more about using it to the lawyer’s advantage. And since tax is on the Texas bar exam now and is a required course, I’m also surprised that there’s not more emphasis put on finance, deductions, income, etc. There are clear ways to include some of the basics in the already harrowing minefield that is law school, esp. if they required students to complete a tutorial on some of these topics for some obvious reward. I can’t stress enough how important it is to work for a reputable, competent attorney/firm right out of law school so as to learn the right way to handle these 10 points, instead of learning the hard way later, if ever…

  • The forgiveness goes a long way, as does not burning bridges. I tell students all the time that even if you don’t think you’re going to practice in the area where you went to law school, don’t leave a bad taste in the mouth of your professors and fellow students. You never know where your paths may cross again in the future, and as long as you held up your end of the bargain you can always hold your head high. I worked for an attorney once who would avoid certain parts of town to avoid running into former colleagues. I swore I’d never be that person.

    • Sarah,

      Exactly. Your reputation and your name is everything in law. Unfortunately, I don’t think law schools do enough to teach students the importance of always upholding oneself with dignity and integrity.

  • Lawyer

    There are 1 or 2 items in there on which law schools perhaps should offer electives. Most would be just about as important for accountants, engineers, and dentists. They’re just life skills, social skills. Few or no schools–law or any subject matter–teach them.

    • Totally! Perhaps we just need a “How to Be a Good Human” course.

  • Robert Joseph Brown

    A good list, Jeena. There are of course many other things that law school doesn’t teach us. However, the one I would be so presumptuous as to add to your list is “how to be positive”.R

  • IndyMatt

    Great list, but law school is not a vocational school and it should not become one. I have noticed that some people that lack these skills are the same people that passed on internships or “real world experience” during law school. Internships are everywhere. Quit waiting for things to be handed to you. Go get what you want and learn from the great attorneys that came before you!

    • Law school, like medical schools should train graduates to be able to do the job they spend $150,000+ and three years to acquire. I could never understand the argument that law school is only supposed to train you to “think like a lawyer.” Would we expect doctors to graduate from medical schools only with the skill of being able to “think like a doctor?” Of course not.

      We should absolutely teach law students to graduate, fully ready to do the work of a lawyer. In fact, this is the gripe of most employers that law schools aren’t properly arming the students with tools necessary to practice law. Law schools should do away with the large lecture halls (which is of course, most cost effective for the law school) and offer a lot more clinics/ smaller format classes.

      • IndyMatt

        You and Mr. Taylor raise good points. So is the solution a residency similar to medical school?

        • Katherine

          I almost feel like the summers or the 3rd year of law school should be spent interning at different law firms, nonprofits, etc.
          All hospitals have special areas set up for residencies- why don’t other institutions that have a legal department do the same? It would take a while to establish and catch on but once it does I think it could become extremely helpful.

    • I disagree. I think law schools do a great disservice to their students by not teaching the vocational aspects of actually being a lawyer, including how to run the back office.

      I took opportunities to work in internships and gain “real world experience” during law school, but none of that prepared me to handle many simple back office tasks, or even how to deal with difficult cases. Most students aren’t prepared to handle the front side tasks, let alone make significant strides to teach them the back side jobs.

  • LamzyLyn

    I cannot tell you how many of these I’ve tried to explain to younger students only to be verbally attacked. I was considered an “older” student and because I have over 15 years experience, I very fortunately learned a lot of these skills on the job. Others I’ve learned thanks to a solo practice course. I do think my law school offers more opportunities to learn these skills than many other schools do, if a student is interested in learning them. I cannot actually say that sitting down to write a business plan for the first time was a treasured experience, but if nothing else, it forces you to reevaluate everything you thought you were going to do and how you were going to go about doing it.

    Adding to Paul’s wish list for career services, it would be fantastic if these departments were equipped to advise new grads on ways to survive financially during the period between the bar exam and practicing law. Better yet, if career services could have opportunities worked out with firms or businesses willing to employ new grads temporarily, it would be phenomenal. Many of us are starting our own solo practices, which makes finding suitable employment for 3-6 months incredibly tough. Most law firms or companies that can afford to pay a decent wage won’t touch you once they realize you’re a short term investment. Most of us feel like we’ve been “dumped” on the street at the end of a stressful relationship.

  • williamtfox

    Is this the job of the law school or is it the job of the firms that ‘train’ you?

    The ‘difficult conversations’ is spot on

  • Great observations. When will the methods of teaching law change? The evidence certainly suggests it should and can. A lengthy quote from a book that speaks directly to this: The Language of Law School: Learning to “Think Like a Lawyer” by Elizabeth Mertz and published by Oxford University Press in 2007. “The book discusses how these schools employ the Socratic method between teacher and student, forcing the student to shift away from moral and emotional terms in thinking about conflict, toward frameworks of legal authority instead. This move away from moral frameworks is key, the book says, arguing that it represents an underlying world view at the core not just of law education, but for better or worse, of the entire U.S. legal system—which, while providing a useful source of legitimacy and a means to process conflict, fails to deal systematically with aspects of fairness and social justice.”

  • MHoff

    I agree with the others – this is a wonderful list. I wonder if some of these skills should be considered during the admissions process as well as taught during law school. I am a recent graduate and it has become exceedingly clear that “soft skills” often make the difference between passing the bar (or not) and getting a job shortly after graduation (or not). Many book smart graduates that I know just cannot find a job, where the more well-rounded students in the middle of the class rankings are employed and thriving. People and life skills such as networking, empathy, mindfulness, handling conflict, and maintaining balance often make the difference between being “successful” after law school or not. Since law school rankings now have a lot to do with whether or not a university’s students can pass the bar, get a job, or earn a decent salary, I am shocked that law schools haven’t taken more of the items on this list into account. “Thinking like a lawyer” is an incredibly small piece of what it means to be a success in this field. Jeena, you should consider going into law school administration…

    • “Jeena, you should consider going into law school administration…” That is very flattering. But no law school would have me. :) I’d break the existing system.

      Interestingly, there is a movement called Humanizing Law School http://archive.law.fsu.edu/academic_programs/humanizing_lawschool/humanizing_lawschool.html where professors are talking about some of these issues. However, there is a tension between the old guards and the new professors.

      Of course, if we adopt this new way of thinking, the old guards would in some ways be admitting that how they have been teaching the students was harmful to them. So, I think that is part of the resistance. Also, some are very adamant that we shouldn’t coddle the students because law is really tough and we need to “toughen up” these young students.

      It’s an interesting/ complex issue. Thanks for your comment and I wish you best of luck.

  • Carolyn Mcnerney

    This is a great list. There should be a class in law school on the practical aspects of being a lawyer. Then again, isn’t it weird that we all took a class in contracts and we never wrote a contract? In fact you can graduate law school without ever having read a full contract? Law school and real practice have very little correlation.

  • ReelTime CLE

    Fantastic stuff, Jeena! Spot on! Like you, most everything I learned about the topics on your list happened in 15+ years of bumbling through some incredibly stressful encounters with opposing counsel, clients, judges, and colleagues, and doing a lot of debriefing trying to determine what had gone wrong. I did have some good mentors along the way, but I sure wish that I had had considerably more forewarning about these interpersonal aspects of practicing law. Happily, I can report that some law schools, such as mine (the Charlotte School of Law), are in fact on the same page, and have launched proactive efforts to address these significant issues.

    The one skill I would suggest adding to your list, which I think has relevance to several of the listed items, is the importance of listening, and specifically the art/skill of “active listening.” I heard not one word about this crucial skill during law school, nor in probably my first 5 years of practice at least. A game changer for me was reading an article in the ABA Journal by a Charlotte lawyer named Edward G. “Woody” Connette, entitled, “How To take Better Depositions-and Possibly Improve Your Marriage.” It proposed the radical idea (for me, at least) of actually listening to an opposing or neutral witness’ testimony and making an effort to help him or her feel at ease during a deposition. This article radically changed how I approached depositions and witness interviews, rendering them both less stressful (for both me and the witness) and practically more successful in terms of the helpful information elicited. (And it did indeed turn out to be helpful for my marriage as well! :-) )

    The importance of active listening as a powerful tool in the lawyer’s toolkit was even further confirmed when I underwent training to serve as a mediator (which also was my first introduction, in the context of practicing law, at least) to several of the other skills you mentioned). Now that I am actually in the world of legal academia, active listening is a core skill I teach in my “Interviewing, Client Counseling, and Negotiations” class. Having seen the proverbial “light bulb” go on for law students as they learn to incorporate this skill (as a complement to thoughtful and thorough legal analysis of a client’s problem, of course) has convinced me that law school is indeed a proper (indeed, an excellent) place to help lawyers begin developing it.

    Thanks again for your great work! Michael and I are looking forward to connecting with you soon for a phone call. Take care, Chris

  • Kelsey B.

    Thank you for having health and wellness on your list. I am a law student right now leading an initiative to make mental, physical, and emotional wellness a top priority of the school. Currently the initiative is not going anywhere, but if they hear from lawyers and employers that this is something that should be taught in law schools, they will make a change.

  • Sherman Clark

    Good stuff Ms. Cho. Here in my twentieth year as a law prof, I try to think as well and broadly as possible—too broadly, in the eyes of some, perhaps—about the knowledge, skills. and capacities lawyers need if they are to thrive; but I am acutely aware that we tend to focus on certain intellectual capacities. And as vital as those intellectual capacities are (and they are vital), there are so many crucial things we do not help our students learn. You have cogently identified ten such. Keep up the terrific work.

  • Tirena Schue

    I agree with everything you said here. There are many attorneys who just refuse to grow up and see past the competition and chill out. Everyone is invested in their client, they should be anyway.

    I think perhaps moving forward, the legal industry needs to hand off the tedious tasks that we squabble about to the technology sector. Perhaps some bridges of communication can be built there.

    Cathy Reisenwitz just wrote an excellent article where she interviewed leaders in the legal tech industry about their roles in advancing “the law”… including attorney communications. It’s a quick worth-while read and can perhaps serve as the impetus to some law office innovation: http://bit.ly/1StBW60

  • Tiffany P. Monorom

    I’m a first year law student so I find this article very helpful. I’ll keep these ten things in mind throughout my legal career. Thank you for writing it!

  • Stuart Mauney

    But it doesn’t HAVE to be a beer. We have normalized drinking alcohol, to excess, as a socially acceptable way to network or unwind. There needs to be a willingness to take a long hard look at the culture we have created with respect to alcohol. Lawyers are twice as likely to have a substance abuse disorder than the general population. Next time, let’s say “enjoy a cup of coffee with opposing counsel.” Thanks–good article.

    • Drinking alcohol is normal. Drinking alcohol to excess is not normal, but it is obviously not what Jeena meant.